One of the tour brochures perfectly sums up the Long Island wine scene: “Salt of the Earth Meets Salt of the Sea”, which I believe the people of the region coined because of their terroir (soils that have “excellent internal drainage” meets cooling breezes from the Long Island Sound and the Atlantic Ocean).
As I’m not one to rely on brochures to make an article, I dug up my trusty textbooks to figure out what Long Island wineries are all about and…
I found a LOT of literature on Finger Lakes (an AVA famous for Chablis-style Chardonnays, and their ability to turn grapes than normally thrive in warm climates into elegant, sophisticated wine), responsible for less than 10% of the USA’s wine production.
What was written about Long Island involves wine “also” being produced there (it had a feeling of being an afterthought, quite honestly), and that it has a temperate, “moist environment suitable for cool climate grape varieties of which plantings are slowly increasing.”* The viticulture hazards it normally faces include birds, hurricanes, and because of its proximity to the ocean, salinity (or being sprayed with sea salt which then causes damage to vines).
Long Island is divided into AVAs: North Fork of Long Island AVA (established in 1986), the Hamptons Long Island AVA (established in 1985), and Long Island AVA (established in 2001).
The Hamptons, however, was the region we visited because it was an easy, two hour drive** from Manhattan where we were staying, and come on… It’s so fun to say, “We’ve been to the Hamptons for wine”, right?
The region, apart from being the summer capital of New York (owning a house there is so prestigious and pricey, and if Gossip Girl is taken as gospel, it’s the ultimate playground for the rich and famous East Coasters), is known for producing Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and sparkling wine made using the traditional method (as is done in the Champagne region). Historically, it was potato country until Alex and Louisa Hargrave (of the once upon a time Hargrave Vineyard, now Castello di Borghese) changed the potato plantings to vitis vinifera (vines that produce grapes for winemaking).
All this, of course, is quite technical (and theoretical… Here’s to hoping I haven’t lost my audience by now), so I decided to actually go there myself and check the wines out.
Our first stop (as recommended by a Manhattan-based friend) was Wölffer Estate Vineyard. Founded by the effervescent Christian Wölffer in 1988, the vineyard is a reflection of his two passions: “elegant, fashionable, food-friendly” wines made with longevity in mind, and horses (which is the reason why there’s normally a horse on the wine labels). After he passed away, his children Joey and Marc inherited the estate, partnering with gifted winemaker Roman Roth. They also make Rosé ciders from the Halsey Apple Orchard (and they sell so fast we couldn’t get any from the winery).
My favourites include the Perle Chardonnay (made in the traditional Burgundy style, the 2012 vintage was served during the state visit of German Chancellor Angela Merkel with President Barack Obama), the highly lauded Descencia Botrytis Riesling/Chardonnay (it wasn’t supposed to be part of the tasting, but I might have talked everyone’s ear off, including that of General Manager Max Rohn’s, that they gave me a little taste of that elegant, liquid gold of a wine), and the iconic Christian’s Cuvée Merlot (which, as the people of Wölffer assured me, was “a true Sagaponack wine”).
Closer to the Peconic Bay was Channing Daughters Winery. Known for their artisanal experimentation, they produce wines from what I could only think are the minds of imaginative geniuses (combine that with making wine from small, unique vineyards and drinkers are guaranteed wine that is so out of the box and so good).
The man behind the counter was the affable Anthony Persico. A man who could truly talk (wine) shop, we spoke at great lengths to the point of losing track of time (we almost hit the massive Manhattan rush hour on our way back).
How could we not… They’ve got an extensive selection, with everything from the Ramato Orange Wine (a rare find, using an even rarer process using French and Slovenian oak), a funky-named Scuttlehole Chardonnay (which I could only describe as one of the cleanest Chardonnays I’ve ever had), a crisp Tocai Friulano (that begged for food to pair with it), Rosato di Franconia (close to my preferred crisp, summery Rosé style), Blaufrankisch (an homage to German reds), a well-made Cabernet Franc (I have a disdain for “overworked” Cabernet Franc, which tends to be a little on the overly acidic side, so it’s a gem for me to find well thought of Cabernet Franc), to their seasonal vermouth. There are more technical ways to discuss the Vervino Variation 6 – Autumn red vermouth, but to put it ever so simply, it tasted and smelled like autumn. None of the wines I tried were textbook, but all of them were phenomenal.
Ending things on this note, Long Island is a fantastic place to visit for the scenery, the hospitable people, and the opportunity to learn about winemaking (and not just as an afterthought).
And hey, if you’re just after drinking, I guarantee that you’ll find something there to whet your wine appetite.
*Source: Wines and Spirits, Understanding Style and Quality, published by the Wine & Spirit Education Trust, with additional information from The Oxford Companion to Wine by Jancis Robinson
**Do not drink and drive
Special Thanks to Anj Chang whose love of Fatalis by Wölffer Estate got us there, Max Rohn of Wölffer Estate, and Anthony Persico of Channing Daughters (I promise a longer conversation when we see you again)
For our favourite New Yorkers, Joe and Louella Ramos